Why Politics lessons are important

Citizenship education was introduced as a statutory National Curriculum subject in secondary schools in England by Labour in 2002 and covers a wide variety of topics, including politics and government, the legal system, equal opportunities and human rights issues. However, I very much welcome Shout Out UK’s campaign for more politics teaching in schools. Too much of what passes as citizenship education treats active citizenship as synonymous simply with volunteering, rather than ensuring that young people develop the skills and gain the experience to become politically literate citizens, knowledgeable about the major political issues of the day and actively involved, in different ways, in debates about how public or private services ought to be run. Why is this important? Politics is about expressing and trying to resolve or at least mitigate differences between people – differences of ideas, interests and values, for example – and about finding ways of cooperating to achieve collective action and decision-making. This becomes increasingly problematic when, as is the case at present in the UK, forms of disengagement from mainstream politics, particularly amongst young people, are so pronounced in historical terms, such as low levels of turnout in elections, membership of political parties and trust in the political class.

At the same time, there is good evidence that citizenship lessons do have a positive impact on pupil engagement in society, in terms of increased civic and political participation. Certainly, citizenship education is not a panacea, and it is important that political disengagement is not seen solely as a problem of citizens’ attitudes towards politics. In particular, given the unedifying spectacle of mudslinging by politicians, despite or perhaps because of the fact that there has been a substantial policy convergence between the major parties over the past couple of decades, it is unsurprising that party politics is seen by some citizens as offering a limited and rather unappealing choice. Nevertheless, if politics is defined in terms of power-relations between people, and the inevitability of disagreement about how lives should be lived, how resources should be allocated and so on, then it is inescapably important to us all – whether we like it or not. As such, far from trying to water citizenship lessons down, by removing citizenship as a core ‘Foundation Subject’ of the National Curriculum, as has been recommended by the Curriculum Review Panel set up by the coalition government, what is instead needed is a strengthening of the role of citizenship education, through a greater focus on ‘political literacy’ and through it being accorded a higher status, more resources and greater numbers of specialist staff to teach it.

By: Dr Ben Kisby

Lecturer in Politics, School of Social & Political Sciences, University of Lincoln.
Author of The Labour Party and Citizenship Education (Manchester University Press, 2012).